These reviews are based on visits before Michigan’s pandemic shutdown. Originally scheduled for the Observer’s April issue, they were held until the club could resume live performances and table service.
Frankly, I was worried about reviewing Blue LLama, a Main Street newcomer and arguably Ann Arbor’s most sophisticated venue. Not just a restaurant, it’s also a jazz club, and when it comes to jazz, I’m a musical troglodyte. Raised on country, grown up in folk and then rock and roll, and disposed towards blues, I rarely “get” jazz scores. Also, do foodies really want a band playing a few feet away? Do musicians appreciate folks chewing and sipping and chatting in their faces? But the fusion of food and music is central to Blue LLama’s concept, and supper clubs, after all, have been around for decades, so I made a first foray with a friend.
The evening didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped: that night, the music seemed to jangle more than jingle. “Not only doesn’t jazz sing to me,” my friend declared, “it actively hurts! On the other hand, the food is incredible. Why do you need to have jazz when the food is this yummy?
“Besides,” she continued, “you can’t talk–or play–to me while I’m eating forty-four-dollar lamb; I gotta pay attention!”
I left her to her lamb chops and surveyed the room. The scene was urbane, cool but warm, with big city vibes. Above us, the ceiling faded into an evening sky of halos and sequins. Next to us, a guy taking classes from the guitar player had surprised us by admitting he came to jazz through country (Willie Nelson’s album of standards). Behind us, a family of four ate a dinner of snacks, the kids engulfed in adolescent boredom, the parents listening appreciatively to the music. A crowd of diverse colors and ages filled the adjacent dining room, leaning back against soft banquettes, or rhythmically bobbing their heads at stage-front tables.
Two servers–one, her hair bound at the crown like the feathers of a bird’s tail, the other’s swept up to cascade down in a great froth a la Cher from Moonstruck–glided smoothly among the tables. The hostess, slim, elegant, beautifully put together–a Vogue ideal rarely seen in Ann Arbor–dropped off amuse-bouches and second cocktails. I sighed contentedly and took another sip of wine.
If I was partially hooked, a subsequent visit with my husband and a couple far more fluent in the genre reeled me in. Though we had never met before, we had a great time discovering we had much in common, and, once the music began, we all found it engaging and polished; my husband, a former stand-up bassist–folk, not jazz–was particularly impressed by the group. And the room was as lively and cosmopolitan–and jazzed–as before.
And the food? It, too, stands up to the scene. With a concept of shared plates, many of executive chef Louis Goral’s dishes tend toward small samples of high-end ingredients–artichokes, oysters, foie gras, scallops, wild mushrooms. Consequently, while the quality is high, prices can be, too, like my friend’s $44 lamb chops (two, deliciously executed, with a scoop of wild rice). But don’t let that stop you. The menu’s vegetable category, in particular, is studded with intriguing–and less expensive–options.
The kitchen starts each table’s experience with an inventive, mysteriously constructed amuse-bouche–one night a passion fruit and pear sphere, another a coconut-lime tickle. From the menu, bacon-wrapped artichokes feature fresh (not frozen, not canned!!) quarters encircled in pork and drizzled with Meyer lemon aioli–promising, if tiny. Segments of grilled octopus, entangled with pickled onions on toast, left us all wishing for more. Goral’s baked oysters–sort of a rustic version of oysters Rockefeller employing Swiss chard and cheddar–are both filling and elegant. Roasted squash bisque, silky and sublime, surprises with an earthy garnish of crumbled morcilla. Another appetizer, crispy deviled eggs–panko-crusted fried whites standing as a base for a yellow pyramid of spiced filling–has to be the most stylized presentation of this classic I’ve ever seen.
Goral’s tamale bolitas (corn and masa dumplings) are fabulously inventive, and the smoked potatoes with chorizo and a poached egg–admittedly as much protein as produce–offer yet another reason to eat breakfast at dinner.
Like the lamb chops, respectable-but-unexceptional boneless Berkshire ribs with blue cheese and bacon potato salad ($35 for three small strips) make me question value for price, but three diver scallops, perfectly sauteed and enrobed in a satiny miso beurre blanc, seem worthy of the $29 extravagance. And the beef Wellington, a stand-alone at $44, rests on its plate as the very epitome of willful indulgence–rosy, tender meat, flaky pastry, seductive sauce.
Desserts aren’t too shabby either. The kitchen’s tiramisu raises standards by sneaking a few cherries into the mix. Dulce de leche gilds pillowy orange-blossom beignets. Or a chocolate “tower”, encircled by a tea-flavored custard sauce and caramel gelato, brings a lovely end to a lovely meal.
“How do you think they make money?” I asked Lars, our jazz expert. With two shows a night and without a regular cover charge–usually it’s optional, obligatory only for big, out-of-town musicians–the small room (about ninety seats) can’t make money by flipping tables several times. And I noticed at least one or two tables saved each evening for band companions who didn’t eat or drink much, sacrificing valuable real estate.
These factors, of course, help explain the high menu prices–you’re enjoying free entertainment–but is Ann Arbor, a small city with big-time aspirations, up to supporting such a cool scene? I hope so, because now that I’ve broken through the jazz barrier–partially anyway, the discordant stuff still sounds, well, discordant to me–I’d like to continue enjoying Blue LLama’s polish on both table and stage.
The Blue LLama has revitalized the Ann Arbor jazz scene since opening a year ago. We used to have two full-time jazz clubs featuring both local and national artists, but the Bird of Paradise closed in 2004 and the Firefly Club in 2009. Jazz continues at smaller venues in Ann Arbor some nights of the week, like the Zal Gaz Grotto Club, the Old Town, and Kerrytown Concert House, to name a few (see Events).
While jazz musicians play in a variety of venues, from bars to concert stages, they prefer jazz clubs for their unique musical focus. The Blue LLama differs from its two Ann Arbor predecessors by offering fine dining, rather than snacks or bar staples like burgers. The Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe Farms is the only Detroit-area establishment on a similar fine-dining-plus-jazz path–and has been so for a dozen years–which bodes well for the Blue LLama.
The Blue LLama draws on some of the same local talent as the Dirty Dog. One of them is drummer Sean Dobbins, who performed with his Modern Jazz Messengers on February 7, the night the Observer’s food reviewer and I visited with our spouses.
Dobbins is an Ypsilanti-based musician who got his start under mentors like Morris Lawrence at Washtenaw Community College and trumpeter Louis Smith, who worked for years in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Now in his mid-40s, Dobbins is a powerful drummer with lots of technique and musical taste who knows how to swing a band. He is also a great communicator and educator who invites the audience to share in his joy of playing with his somewhat younger Messengers. It is no surprise that Dobbins is in high demand on the metro Detroit jazz scene.
Dobbins is modeling his group on one of the classic modern jazz bands of the 1950s, drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey’s group was a forerunner to the soul jazz movement of the 1960s with its emphasis on freewheeling improvisation backed by a solid beat. A long line of influential soloists developed their skills under Blakey’s tutelage, and Dobbins aims to do the same for new generations of Detroit-area players. Dobbins’ Modern Jazz Messengers have a wide repertoire of jazz standards, with a substantial dose of Blakey originals, as well as songs written by the band members.
Thirty-year-old tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliot is one of those rapidly rising talents, and trumpeter Tim Blackmon is another. Pianist Corey Kendrick is a versatile player who combined sensitive chording behind the horns with fluent solos of his own. Bassist Ibrahim Jones provided solid drive and support for the group throughout the evening and worked beautifully in tandem with Dobbins’ drumming.
The Blue LLama provides a near-perfect listening experience for audiences and musicians alike, thanks to a state-of-the-art sound system. The club used Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center as the model, even bringing some of the sound engineers who worked on it from New York to Ann Arbor. Specially designed speakers and wall materials provide the same aural experience anywhere in the club.
Anyone enjoying the combination of modern jazz and delicious small-plate food has much to look forward to in downtown Ann Arbor. We are privileged to have this available to us, and I strongly recommend a visit to see how it fits your musical and culinary tastes.
The Blue LLama
314 S. Main
Mon.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 3-10 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m.
Plates from $8-$44